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Robert A. Harris

Music professor and conductor Robert A. Harris was born on January 9, 1938 in Detroit, Michigan. His father, Major Harris, was a factory worker; his mother, Rusha Harris, a homemaker. Harris attended Sherrill Elementary and graduated from Charles Chadsey High School in 1956. He studied at Wayne State University where he earned his B.A. degree in music education in 1960 and his M.A. degree in music on 1962. Harris briefly attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and then received his Ph.D. degree in composition and theory from Michigan State University in 1971. He also completed post-doctoral work at Aspen Music School in 1973 and 1974.

In 1960, Harris was hired as a music teacher in the Detroit Public Schools. He was then appointed as an assistant professor of music at Wayne State University. Harris became Director of Choral Activities at Michigan State University in 1964, and then joined the faculty of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music as professor of conducting and director of choral organizations in 1977. He has also served as a visiting professor at Wayne State University, the University of Texas, and the University of South Africa in Pretoria. In 2012, Harris retired as professor emeritus at Northwestern University. Harris has appeared as a conductor, choral clinician and adjudicator throughout the United States and in the Republic of China where he served as one of two guest conductors/clinicians for the Taipei Philharmonic Choral and Conducting Workshop. His international performances also include South Korea as the guest conductor for the Inchon City Chorale, and Hong Kong as a guest conductor of a Choral Festival Youth Chorale. As an international music instructor, Harris has presented master classes, workshops, and lectures on conducting in South Africa, as well as presenting lectures and master classes on African American spirituals in Argentina.

Harris served as a member and co-chair of the Choral Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. Harris is associated with a number of professional and honorary organizations, including the American Choral Directors Association, the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), Chorus America, Pi Kappa Lambda National Honor Music Society and Phi Mu Alpha Professional Music Fraternity.

Harris has received several awards and honors, including the Wayne State University “Alumni Arts Achievement Award in Music,” the Northwestern University School of Music “Faculty Exemplar Teaching Award,” and the Northwestern University Alumni Association “Excellence in Teaching Award.” As a composer, Harris has been the recipient of over forty commissions from various schools, churches and musical organizations. His compositions, especially those of the choral genre, have been performed throughout the United States, Europe and South Africa. A number of his compositions have been published.

Robert A. Harris was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 25, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.234

Sex

Male

Interview Date

8/25/2013

Last Name

Harris

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

Allen

Schools

Sherrill Elementary School

Chadsey High School

Wayne State University

Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

Michigan State University

Aspen Music School

First Name

Robert

Birth City, State, Country

Detroit

HM ID

HAR43

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Michigan

Favorite Vacation Destination

United Kingdom

Favorite Quote

It's Better to Have It and Not Need It Than to Need It and Not Have It.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Birth Date

1/9/1938

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Evanston

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Seafood

Short Description

Conductor and music professor Robert A. Harris (1938 - ) , former Director of Choral Activities at Michigan State University, retired as professor emeritus of the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music in 2012.

Employment

Detroit Public Schools System

Wayne State University

Michigan State University

Northwestern University

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert A. Harris' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Robert A. Harris lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Robert A. Harris describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Robert A. Harris talks about his adoptive father's, Major Lee Harris', first name

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Robert A. Harris talks about his adoptive parents

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Robert A. Harris talks about his biological father and being adopted by his aunt and uncle

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Robert A. Harris describes his early exposure to the Baptist and Methodist churches

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Robert A. Harris lists his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Robert A. Harris describes his childhood neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Robert A. Harris describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Robert A. Harris describes his exposure to jazz and bebop music as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Robert A. Harris recalls attending shows at the Paradise Theater and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Robert A. Harris talks about his music education and instructors at Sherrill Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Robert A. Harris talks about his extracurricular activities at Chadsey High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Robert A. Harris talks about his maternal uncle

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Robert A. Harris talks about black history organizations and clubs in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Robert A. Harris talks about his mentors at Chadsey High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Robert A. Harris remembers collecting classical music records and receiving a gift from a choir director as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Robert A. Harris explains the history of African American spirituals

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Robert A. Harris talks about sacred anthems and oratorios

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Robert A. Harris talks about Leonard Bernstein's influence on his classical music interest

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Robert A. Harris recalls listening to jazz pianist, Alice Coltrane

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Robert A. Harris describes an experience of racial stereotyping by a teacher at Sherrill Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Robert A. Harris talks about his college preparatory curriculum at Chadsey High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Robert A. Harris talks about his decision to study music in college and his first conducting experience

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Robert A. Harris talks about his decision to attend Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Robert A. Harris describes integrating a Detroit, Michigan restaurant and a Washington D.C. hotel pool

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Robert A. Harris talks about his mentors at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Robert A. Harris talks about his music education curriculum at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Robert A. Harris talks about teaching in the Detroit Public Schools while studying for his Master's degree at Wayne State University

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Robert A. Harris recalls his decision to join the faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Robert A. Harris talks about his Master's thesis on 1920s African American classically trained musicians and hearing Paul Robeson sing in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Robert A. Harris talks about teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Robert A. Harris talks about black music ensembles in Detroit, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Robert A. Harris recalls his decision to stop his doctorate studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Robert A. Harris talks about earning his Ph.D. and teaching at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Robert A. Harris talks about composing choral music and meeting Eva Jessye

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Robert A. Harris talks about joining the faculty of Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music in 1977

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Robert A. Harris talks about the differences between Michigan State University and Northwestern University

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Robert A. Harris talks about the students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Robert A. Harris talks about the music faculty at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Robert A. Harris talks about teaching conducting at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Robert A. Harris describes the role of the conductor

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Robert A. Harris describes his conducting philosophy and conducting 'Not In Our Time' by Richard Blackford

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Robert A. Harris talks about preparing for a performance and explains how a musical composition translates into a performance

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Robert A. Harris talks about Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Robert A. Harris talks about black composers and conductors in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Robert A. Harris talks about his own compositions

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Robert A. Harris talks about writing for choral ensembles and solo vocalists

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Robert A. Harris talks about classical church music in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Robert A. Harris talks about former students

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Robert A. Harris talks about conducting internationally and in New York City

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Robert A. Harris talks about musical collaborations

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Robert A. Harris talks about the Winnetka Congregational Church in Winnetka, Illinois

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Robert A. Harris describes his dream choral ensemble

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Robert A. Harris talks about retirement

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Robert A. Harris reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Robert A. Harris talks about his satisfaction with his life and career

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Robert A. Harris describes his hopes for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Robert A. Harris talks about his family

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Robert A. Harris describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Robert A. Harris narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$5

DAStory

10$2

DATitle
Robert A. Harris talks about his Master's thesis on 1920s African American classically trained musicians and hearing Paul Robeson sing in Detroit, Michigan
Robert A. Harris describes his conducting philosophy and conducting 'Not In Our Time' by Richard Blackford
Transcript
Let me go back a little bit and ask you about your thesis, I guess, and--$$Okay.$$So you had to do something.$$I had to do a thesis for my master's degree.$$Right, right. So what, what did you do?$$It was a--it was an oral history, isn't this interesting, called 'Serious Music and the Negro Musician Between 1920 and 1924: An Oral History.' And what I wanted to do was to, to trace what had happened with black musicians who were classically trained rather than in jazz in the early days, and so what I did was with the help of a--of a librarian and a--and a--and a gentleman by the name of Kemper Harrell who also became an, an influence and mentor, was to--he gave me the names of many living black musicians who had, were performing during that time like Roland Hayes, Carl Diton, I mean there was--and so we earmarked five people. And what I did was I went with a tape recorder and I formulated a series of questions that I would ask everybody and then specific questions for that particular individual, and went to New York [City] and Boston [Massachusetts] and interviewed these people on tape, and then transcribed those tapes as a part of my--that was my master's thesis.$$Okay. So interviews with five people? And Roland Hayes was one?$$Roland Hayes was one.$$Okay. Who, who else? Roland Hayes--$$Carl Diton, D-I-T-O-N, who was a composer, Melville Charlton, C-H-A-R-L-T-O-N, who was a concert organist, Charlotte Wallace Murray who was a concert singer--who else was there? There's one more person I'm missing.$$Okay, so that's--$$I interviewed [Francis] Hall Johnson, too, but I couldn't--but he was--he had just had a stroke so I couldn't use that because he could hardly speak, but I did get a chance to meet him. There's somebody whose name--it'll come to me in a minute.$$Okay.$$But--and so what I did was transcribe these into a format with question, answer, question, answer, question, answer, and then at the end, summarize what were the findings of how black musicians--and the reason I--the reason I--I stopped at 1924 because that was the time when Roland Hayes made his Town Hall [Carnegie Hall, New York, New York] debut and he was the first black artist to make--to sing in, in, in Carnegie Hall--Town Hall, in New York [sic, Sissieretta Jones first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1892]. So I was interested in what--and, and the whole thing was, we just found that the churches had always been the, the, the venue where concert artists would, would perform because they were not allowed to perform in concert halls.$$Were the black universities or historically black colleges [HBCUs]--$$That, that would be different--yeah.$$--Producing most of the--$$Yeah, and, and they could perform at--in, in, in black colleges and churches, but not in, in traditional concert halls. And so Roland Hayes made his, his Town Hall debut in 1924, which was the first time that that had happened, and then after that, of course.$$Okay.$$And this predated Marian Anderson and this predated--Paul Robeson was, was, was along at that time, too, but he was a young man at that point, yeah. I didn't get a--he was--he would have been a part of that, that, that age group at that time, but he was not one of the people--persons I had the chance to interview.$$Right, I think he was--$$He was born somewhere around 1890 [sic, 1898], wasn't he? I think somewhere in that--around that time.$$Yeah, he was kind of in--this time was a--or by '62 [1962], he was almost in seclusion or something.$$Well, you know, he had gone through that thing about being a Communist and all that stuff, you know.$$Right, he passed away in '76 [1976] I remember now.$$Yeah, okay.$$But he was--he had been pretty much in seclusion almost for--$$Yeah, by that time--$$--For about ten years.$$--He, he was probably eighties. You know, he couldn't--you know, but he was--he was a force to be reckoned with as a musician, as an actor, as an activist, you know. I remembered in Detroit [Michigan] when I was the music--minister of music at Hartford Avenue Baptist Church [later, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan], Reverend Charles A. Hill who had been one of the first black people to run for the city council in Detroit used to bring Paul Robeson in to do concerts.$$And so did you see him live at--$$One time--yeah, I did.$$Oh, that's something, yeah. Yeah, one of the great musicians, singers, as well as an activist.$$Yeah.$$Did, did, did he give a message in his--$$I don't--I don't--I don't remember him speaking, I mean, except while he was singing, but, but he was such a powerful presence.$$The songs were like freedom songs--$$Freedom songs, spirituals.$$--They had themes--(simultaneous)--$$And he--but he also did a lot of, of German lieder [songs] and things along that line. He did a lot of stuff from the European tradition. He was a very highly trained singer.$$There's a history of blacks in classical music that goes way, way back and--who was that, Sissieretta Jones--$$Sissieretta Jones.$$--Yeah, and--$$Yeah, she was known as the Black Patti, Sissieretta Jones. And, and her name came up a lot when I was talking--doing my interviews with the people that I--comprised my, my thesis. And--I'm tryin' to think, there's another singer who, who also, in, in addition to Sissieretta Jones whose name kept coming up. I can't remember who it is now.$$Yeah, yeah there's a--there's a book--now was the book--we interviewed--we had a chance to interview him before he passed away, but we interviewed [HM] Raoul Abdul, the author of 'Blacks in Classical Music.'$$Right.$$Was that available when you were--$$Yes, it was.$Do you have like favorite conductors?$$I think for specific pieces, you know. It might be--but I mean I'm not one who has to--has to have [Georg] Solti or has to have [Arturo] Toscanini or something. I just--you know, I--I'm more about the music than I am about who's conducting it.$$Now, what's your own philosophy of conducting?$$My philosophy of conducting is that I must do the very best job I can of making what is on that paper come alive so that the listener will hear it and be pleased by what he or she hears and knowing the fact that it's being done with a--with thought, with integrity, with honesty, which is what I always try to, to get my students to understand, that the compos--that our purpose is to reveal the composer, and if we are going to do his or her music, we must do it to the very best of our ability with all the studying and insight that we can.$$Is there a--is there a certain composer whose work is the most challenging to conduct?$$It's all challenging. But I would think--it--it's, it's challenging in different ways, you know. I'm--I'm a strong--I mean, I think if there's one composer that--if you were to say to me you could--you're going to a desert island, you can only take one piece of music, what would you take? I'd take [Johann Sebastian] Bach, okay. Because I feel it--I--I'm drawn to the intellectuality of that--of his music, of the way he thought, of the--of the--of the way his concepts of structure, his concept of counterpoint. I mean, that's--that's just where my mind goes with that, you know. I often tell people that of all my conducting teachers, Bach was the best one, you know. But, but, but all composers--I mean, there's--all of it has its challenges. I mean, obviously music of, of later composers, which is very, very intricate and very involved may have a different kind of challenge. I mean, I've conducted some very new pieces, which took an awful lot of work to delve into them because you're, you're not only learning the new piece, but you're learning a new style. You're learning a new language of a--of a new composer, you know. A piece I did--we, we did the American premier last year as my swan song at Northwestern [University, Evanston, Illinois] of a British composer's piece called 'Not In Our Time' by Richard Blackford which was a piece that basically commemorated 9/11 [September 11th, 2001] even though it wasn't specific, but it did. And I had to learn--I went over and studied the piece with the composer in order to get--to delve into it. And I was in England when, when it--when it was given its premier performance, and I went to all those performances and rehearsals, trying to see how this piece is working. I had done my homework, but then to, to get a more insight, I spent time in England studying it before doing it here. And then, of course, he was here for the compose--for the performance, and that was even better.$$Was he satisfied with--$$He was very pleased.$$Okay.

Benjamin Wright

Music director, arranger, and conductor Benjamin Franklin Wright, Jr. was born on July 11, 1946 in Greenville, Mississippi. Wright started his music career while in high school, performing as a drum major in the marching band and singing Doo Wop in a group he and his friends started. Wright attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music and received his Ph.D. from the Pentecostal Bible College in Tuskegee, Alabama.

After high school, Wright embarked on his first major musical tour with rhythm and blues icon Ted Taylor. During the tour, Wright played piano and sang back-up for the band. The Ted Taylor Tour allowed Wright to experience music arrangement for the first time, and his subsequent success within the industry took him on the road with James Brown, Otis Redding, Billy Stewart and Gladys Knight and The Pips. Shortly after Wright’s touring period, he was drafted into the United States Air Force. While there, Wright met “Fats” Ford, a trumpet player who played with Duke Ellington. Ford eventually introduced Wright to Duke Ellington, an experience that changed his life forever. After Wright’s honorable discharge from the military in Alabama, he worked for several years with Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces, before working on the hotel circuit and jazz trios throughout the country. In 1969, Wright worked as a copyist for notable musical arrangers such as Charles Stepney, Gene Barge, Donny Hathaway and Richard Evans. Concurrently, Wright performed with Pieces of Peace, a group of musicians who recorded music sessions for Jackie Wilson, The Chi-Lites, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. After traveling overseas with Pieces of Peace at the end of 1971, Wright enrolled in the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and shortly thereafter formed the Benjamin Wright Orchestra. In 1975, Wright moved to Los Angeles, California and became the musical director for The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Aretha Franklin, and Barry White and The Love Unlimited Orchestra. In 1979, Wright acted as the string arranger for Michael Jackson’s first solo album, Off the Wall, where he met producer Quincy Jones. Between 1982 and 1983, Wright opened the Ritesonian Recording Studio, and in 1987, he went back on the road as the musical director for Gladys Knight and The Pips to do a year of one-night-only performances. In 2003, Wright and long time friend and former singer with The Temptations, Louis Price, formed the Price/Wright Orchestra. Then, in 2004, Wright wrote five new arrangements for singer Brandy and produced three songs with Otis Williams for The Temptations. Wright has also done arrangements on Outkast and Justin Timberlake’s Grammy-winning albums Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Justified respectively. In 2005, Wright was honored by being invited to write and conduct the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra for the Patty LaBelle segment of the Nobel Peace Prize celebration in Oslo, Norway.

Wright was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 18, 2007 and March 9, 2017.

Accession Number

A2007.146

Sex

Male

Interview Date

4/18/2007 |and| 07/22/2017

Last Name

Wright

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

Julia Armstrong Elementary School

Coleman High School

American Conservatory of Music

Berklee College of Music

First Name

Benjamin

Birth City, State, Country

Greenville

HM ID

WRI03

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Mississippi

Favorite Vacation Destination

Saint Martin

Favorite Quote

Straight Ahead.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

7/11/1946

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Lobster

Short Description

Music arranger, music director, and conductor Benjamin Wright (1946 - ) became the musical director for The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Aretha Franklin, Barry White and The Love Unlimited Orchestra. He has arranged music on the albums by Michael Jackson, Outkast, and Justin Timberlake.

Favorite Color

Green

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Benjamin Wright's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright describes his maternal and paternal family histories

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright talks about his parents return to Greenville, Mississippi from Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about his experience at Julia L. Armstrong Elementary School

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright talks about being inspired to play piano by his church and his sister

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Benjamin Wright talks about playing his sister's piano

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright talks about his choir at Coleman High School

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about his high school doo-wop group, The Soothers

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright talks about his choir at Coleman High School in Greenville, Mississippi, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about his choir at Coleman High School in Greenville, Mississippi, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright talks about singing in the choir at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about playing in his high school band director's swing group

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright describes chopping cotton and avoiding snakes with his father

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Benjamin Wright talks about his father's independent contractor business

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright talks about his early awareness of racism in Greenville, Mississippi

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about Emmett Till and meeting the Freedom Riders

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright describes the difference between his parents' attitudes about the Civil Rights Movement and his own

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright describes his growing consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright describes his maturation in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright describes his first experience writing music

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright describes how a performance of Handel's "Messiah" encouraged him to write music

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright describes honing his ear as an arranger at Coleman High School

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright describes being expelled from Coleman High School in Greenville, Mississippi

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright talks about receiving his diploma from Coleman High School in Greenville, Mississippi

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright recalls his introduction to Down Beat magazine and HistoryMaker B.B. King

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright talks about working for his father and meeting with his high school counselor

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright describes auditioning for Ted Taylor's band

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright recalls beginning to tour with singer Ted Taylor

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright describes his experience touring with singer Ted Taylor

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about why he has never done drugs

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright describes meeting Peggy Lee and his decision to remain on the road with Ted Taylor

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about a Civil Rights march and concert with James Brown and Mitty Collier in Birmingham, Alabama in 1965

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright describes trying to avoid the Vietnam War draft by enrolling at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright describes a racist experience on the first night he was in the U.S. Air Force

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright talks about studying music while in the U.S. Air Force

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about his job in the communications center at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright describes the last time he saw his mother and getting an Humanitarian Deferment during the Vietnam War

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about touring as an organist with Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces and Skip McQueen

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright describes playing with Skip McQueen's trio

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about moving to Chicago, Illinois to play with Jerry Wilson's band, the Pieces of Peace

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright recalls meeting Duke Ellington while in the U.S. Air Force, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright recalls meeting Duke Ellington while in the U.S. Air Force, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about joining the Pieces of Peace in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright talks about his family

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright describes enrolling at the Chicago Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright describes his experience in Singapore

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about his experience at the Chicago Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright talks about the difference between music education and practical musicianship

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Benjamin Wright describes the growth of his career as an arranger

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Benjamin Wright describes moving to Los Angeles, California

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Slating of Benjamin Wright's interview, session 2

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright remembers his return to civilian life

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright recalls being drafted

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about going back on tour with Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces after his military discharge

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright recalls the racism in the South during his early tours

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright remembers President Bill Clinton

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright remembers meeting Skip McQuinn

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright remembers playing music for the mob

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about his decision to move to Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright talks about abstaining from drug use

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about composing music

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright remembers his work as a copyist

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about his business and marketing philosophy

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright recalls the artists he's work with

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright remembers passing the entrance exam to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about his experience at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright talks about the European tour with Pieces of Peace

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright describes why Pieces of Peace dissolved after their European tour

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright remembers playing popular nightclubs in Chicago, Illinois with The Benjamin Wright Orchestra

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright recalls his reasons for moving to Los Angeles, California

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright remembers his early success in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright talks about becoming the music director for The Temptations

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright reflects upon his work with The Temptations

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright recalls his biggest hits as a composer

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about negotiating his rate as an arranger and composer

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright recalls meeting Quincy Jones

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright remembers writing music for Quincy Jones

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright talks about his biggest hit singles

Tape: 12 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright remembers working with Michael Jackson

Tape: 12 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright describes Quincy Jones

Tape: 12 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright remembers opening Ritesonian Recording Studio in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 12 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright talks about his role as musical director and conductor for the 'Night of the Living Divas'

Tape: 12 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright talks about touring with Gladys Knight and the Pips

Tape: 12 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about arranging music for major artists

Tape: 12 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright remembers the Easter program at the L.A. Forum for Faithful Central Church, pt. 1

Tape: 12 Story: 8 - Benjamin Wright remembers the Easter program at the L.A. Forum for Faithful Central Church, pt. 1

Tape: 13 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright describes his work arranging and composing music for churches

Tape: 13 Story: 2 - Benjamin Wright talks about his faith

Tape: 13 Story: 3 - Benjamin Wright talks about his family

Tape: 13 Story: 4 - Benjamin Wright describes his musical philosophy

Tape: 13 Story: 5 - Benjamin Wright shares his work philosophy

Tape: 13 Story: 6 - Benjamin Wright talks about his plans for the future

Tape: 13 Story: 7 - Benjamin Wright reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 13 Story: 8 - Benjamin Wright reflects upon his life

Tape: 13 Story: 9 - Benjamin Wright describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 13 Story: 10 - Benjamin Wright shares his advice for aspiring musicians

Tape: 14 Story: 1 - Benjamin Wright narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$5

DAStory

2$4

DATitle
Benjamin Wright talks about Emmett Till and meeting the Freedom Riders
Benjamin Wright talks about a Civil Rights march and concert with James Brown and Mitty Collier in Birmingham, Alabama in 1965
Transcript
The Emmett Till thing--you know, we didn't have television, my family, okay, but the when the Emmett Till thing happened, wow, that was heavy duty.$$What are the details that you remember about Emmett Till affair?$$Well, you know, the word was Emmett Till came from Chicago [Illinois], visiting his cousin or whatever and supposedly he whistled at a white woman, and now then (unclear) killed him, identifiable. Shot him, beat him, threw him in the river. You didn't--in Greenville, you didn't see that on a daily basis because you didn't have contact with white people. But as you begin to go to school and whatever--I lived in what is called the "south end." The south end had a big white school called, E.E. Bass [School], by the railroad tracks. Now, I had to--E.E. Bass was maybe 10 or 12 blocks from my house, but I had to go approximately five miles to get to my school [Coleman High School] and you had a choice. You could take the streets or you could take the railroad tracks. The railroad track was a shorter route but you had two dangers, the train--(simultaneous)--$$--Right.--(simultaneous)--$$--there wasn't much room on either side if the train came, and white kids at the school that you had to pass, so nobody knew the other one. There was a fight every day, rock throwing or whatever. And it was like-- I never understood that.$$Was there retaliatory rock throwing, in other words, when the white kids threw at you, you would throw back at them?$$Yeah, yeah, you know. I mean it was on every day, and, you know, you didn't want to--you didn't want to take the track by yourself, generally there was four or five guys, you know. But the racial thing was bad. And like I said, nobody knew each other. White kids didn't know the black kids and vice versa. What the hell are we fighting for, you know? Now, my--my parents [Benjamin F. Wright, Sr. and Colonus Miller], love, love, love, love, love and I have a problem with that because that ain't what's happening outside of this door. Okay? My dad was the Sunday school superintendent, you know. All my dad know is God and carpentry. Never heard him curse, good man. But I don't like what's happening with this, I can't go here, I can't do this. I never knew nothing else, but there is something is wrong here, instinctively something is wrong.$$Okay.$$When the Freedom Riders came, information, information. Well, I'm hanging out down there because all this pent up stuff for me to feel that something is wrong. Now somebody else show up and showed that it is wrong because we didn't get that basically from home, you know.$I-- There's a James Brown date. [Austin] Ted Taylor used to headline over James Brown.$$Okay.$$Now, it's about August. August 1965, 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' hit. Nobody head lined over James no more. So we're going to big James Brown date. I'm excited because a couple of cats in our band knew cats in James' band. They had gone to school together, or something, or whatever, so I'm excited. This gig is in Birmingham, Alabama. I think it's called Ridgeway Field [sic. Rickwood Field]. It's a stadium. James is big. But it's two things happening in town that day, the James Brown gig, which I'm excited to get to, but that morning, there was a march, [Reverend] Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was in Birmingham.$$Okay.$$Now, I've been so Civil Rights conscious and the whole bit. I'm going to be in that march.$$Okay.$$I made that march.$$You're at the march that morning.$$That morning, and that evening--(simultaneous)--$$---you played with James Brown?$$Yes. Now, this was another experience. There was a young lady on the show called, Mitty Collier. Mitty Collier had a big record at that time called 'I had a Talk with My Man Last Night.' Mitty didn't have a band. [Austin] Ted Taylor's band is to play behind Mitty Collier. Well, now, we're set up at around second base. They're calling Mitty Collier. "Mitty Collier!" The stadium is full and people are calling. People are screaming. And this guy is running out toward second base where the band is with some charts. I'd never seen any charts other than in the high school band. The band starts playing (singing) with everybody's come on song. The guy is running out, Mitty Collier. She appears and she is strolling. The guy came out and staring passing music. What am I going to do with this? I can't read this. I can read drum stuff. I'm the piano player. Guess what? In Mitty Collier's record, there is a piano solo--two bar piano solo that is big in the song. (Singing) "I said I had a talk with my man." This is a big part in the song, so they do two songs while I sat silently. And the third song was her hit record. Now, I've been looking through this chart. Throughout these two songs, nobody had heard me, but I could figure out based on my choir experience and my notation in terms of beats and whatever, I was able to figure out that part. So when it got to that part, I'm ready man. I turn up, and I kill it.$$All right.$$I became the hit of the tour. I was so embarrassed. I was so embarrassed.$$About?$$Because I couldn't handle the music.

Julius P. Williams, Jr.

Julius P. Williams is a nationally and internationally known conductor and a professor of composition and conducting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. A prolific composer, Williams has penned operas and works for orchestras and chamber ensembles and for dance, chorus, musical theatre and film. While he is a classical pianist and composer-conductor, Williams is also a master of jazz, gospel and popular music forms.

Williams was born in Bronx, New York on June 22, 1954. He started playing the drums at age eight, but when his parents begged him to choose another instrument he took up the piano instead. Other instruments, like violin, flute, clarinet, and organ soon followed. He attended public schools in New York City, including the High School for the Performing Arts, from which he graduated in 1972. It was in high school that his musical career blossomed as he took part in the All-City Concert Choir program and studied under masters like jazz drummer Max Roach and French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. By age 20, he was playing keyboards on tour with the pop group The 5th Dimension.

Williams earned his B.S. degree in music from Herbert Lehman College in 1977 and his M.M.E. degree from the Hartt School of Music. He studied composition with African American musical giants Ulysses Kay and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson. In 1978, he attended the Aspen Music School in Colorado and composed scores for musical theatre productions for the Henry Street Settlement for the Arts in New York.

Williams has conducting experience at venues throughout the United States and the world. While he was music director and conductor of the Washington Symphony Orchestra, he conducted performances at foreign embassies, the National Cathedral and the White House. He opened the 20th annual Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland by conducting a performance of Duke Ellington's Sacred Music. He debuted at Carnegie Hall when he conducted the inaugural concerts of the Symphony Saint Paulia.

His compositions, which include In Memoriam, September 11, 2001, have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony. Williams, who was once profiled nationally on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt, is also an accomplished music educator, well-regarded for his informal teaching method. He also co-founded VIDEMUS, a non-profit group which produces and releases the music of under-represented artists and composers.

Williams and his wife Lenora Williams, a doctor, live in Ellington, Connecticut with their three children.

Accession Number

A2005.077

Sex

Male

Interview Date

3/24/2005

Last Name

Williams

Maker Category
Middle Name

P

Schools

Andrew Jackson High School

Lehman College

Hartt School of Music

Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

P.S. 136 Roy Wilkins School

Speakers Bureau

Yes

Speakers Bureau Availability

Depends on Schedule

First Name

Julius

Birth City, State, Country

New York

HM ID

WIL25

Speakers Bureau Preferred Audience

Teens, Adults

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

Yes - $1,000 - $5,000

Favorite Season

Spring

Speaker Bureau Notes

Honorarium Specifics: $1500-3000

Preferred Audience: Teens, Adults

State

New York

Favorite Vacation Destination

Europe, Aruba

Favorite Quote

I'm a Black man with dreams and aspirations.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Birth Date

6/22/1954

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Boston

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Steak

Short Description

Music professor, conductor, and music composer Julius P. Williams, Jr. (1954 - ) teaches at the Berklee College of Music. Internationally known, Williams' works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, among many others. Williams was a music director and conductor of the Washington Symphony Orchestra, has conducted performances at foreign embassies, the National Cathedral and the White House.

Employment

Berklee College of Music

Videmus Records

Favorite Color

Black, Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Julius Williams interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Julius Williams lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Julius Williams talks about his mother and maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Julius Williams discusses his father and his parents' views on his being a musician

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Julius Williams shares stories of his father's upbringing in Mississippi

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Julius Williams talks about his brother

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Julius Williams talks about his earliest memories and his religious upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Julius Williams recalls his elementary school education

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Julius Williams reflects on his childhood growing up in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Julius Williams recalls his early family life in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Julius Williams reflects on his first exposure to music and his junior high school experiences

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Julius Williams talks about his boyhood influences in music

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Julius Williams discusses his early musical gigs while in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Julius Williams recalls his high school experiences in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Julius Williams talks about the sights, smells and sounds of his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Julius Williams talks about entering college and the teachers that influenced him

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Julius Williams talks about his music mentors in college

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Julius Williams discusses his marriage and post-graduate studies

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Julius Williams details his music conducting experiences in Aspen, Colorado

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Julius Williams details what it takes to be a music conductor

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Julius Williams talks about where he's conducted and where his music was performed

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Julius Williams discusses music arrangement and conducting Duke Ellington's Sacred Service in 1999

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Julius Williams talks about his CD 'Symphonic Brotherhood' featuring African American symphonic music

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Julius Williams discusses the music organization VIDEMUS

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Julius Williams talks about his teaching positions and other highlights in his music career

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Julius Williams discusses his current career interests in the Boston area

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Julius Williams talks about his children and their interests

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Julius Williams reflects on the difficulties of being a symphonic conductor

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Julius Williams talks about film scores he's written and awards he's won

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Julius Williams reflects on his life and advice to African American youth

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Julius Williams considers his artistic goals for future work

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Julius Williams hopes for greater unity in the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Julius Williams considers his values and how he hopes to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$4

DAStory

4$2

DATitle
Julius Williams discusses his early musical gigs while in high school
Julius Williams discusses the music organization VIDEMUS
Transcript
You have been playing so long by ear and by sound, you just had the natural feeling to, to get it out. Was it difficult to move from that system to now having to be read the music?$$It was very difficult. It was like--I was telling you the story after the teacher found out that I was just picking up things by ear and not really reading what's on the page, she made me read. You know, I had to struggle.$$That didn't turn you off?$$Well it didn't turn me--Well what happened was when I met, you know, people like John Motley and [Coleridge Taylor] Perkinson and I saw them on stage and you know--a--doing a concert with the Symphony of the New World. And he had, you know--and he came out with this leather suit. And he was conducting the symphony. And I said, "Man! This guy." You know. And then I saw one of his pieces, you know. And then I heard this composition. Then I said, "I wanna--I wanna write music. I wanna be a composer." So in order to write music, you have to be able to read music. So then I kind of just totally did everything I could to learn how to read and write music. I must have just--It was like I immersed myself into it so much. That I did it all day long, all night. I started reading books and, you know. You know, just studying, you know. Just what--.$$(Simultaneously) At that point you knew what you wanted to do--,$$(Simultaneously) Right, right.$$(Simultaneously) --with your life, I think So--.$$(Simultaneously) Right then. By the time I got in--I'd say by the second year of high school I knew what--there was nothing else I was gonna do.$$Had you picked up any other instrument at that point?$$Yeah, I was picking up the violin. Wanted the violin so I started playing the violin. And I--I did that mainly to also boost my reading. But then I kind of, you know. So then I became, you know. You know. Started playing this violin and I'm, you know, playing the instrument (mimes playing violin).$$(Simultaneously) Mm-hmm. Any other instruments that came in?$$Yeah. And then I started playing, you know, clarinet and flute and--you know, what else did I pick? (laughs) You know, trumpet for a while.$$Did you have instruction in these (unclear)?$$Yeah, I took--I took some classes. You know. But I mainly because I wanted to be a composer was concentrating on the piano. And meeting Perkinson and also Dizzy Gillespie. Perkinson introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie. Perkinson introduced me to Dizzy. Well then Dizzy got me, you know, to take some lessons with, you know, with his pianist.$$You're still in high school?$$I was still in high school. So, you know, he got me to take these lessons. You know. So I had all these influences. We were in high school. And in, in high school we were totally into music. Because then (unclear) John Motley--I was one--got into the All City High School Chorus. Then he sort of picked kids who were really talented. And put them in his blue collar all city concert choir. And what we were doing then was we were the kids that would do any dignitaries that would come to New York, you know, from the Shah of Iran. And I remember one time to (unclear) to--We would--They would take us out of school.$$I mean almost every day, every week somebody's--.$$(Simultaneously) Every week somebody's coming to New York.$$Yeah.$$And we'd get to stay. I don't know. I don't remember. My last two years of high school I don't know what went on then. Every week. They would just say--call the school and say, "You know, you have to be at such and such at this time." And we would just get (unclear) train and go.$You're the co-director of is it VIDEMUS?$$VIDEMUS. VIDEMUS.$$VIDEMUS?$$Mm-hmm.$$How do you spell that?$$V-I-D-E-M-U-S.$$Uh-huh. When did you commence this activity? What is that about?$$Well VIDEMUS is a--in fact we're very thriving. It started actually in Boston [Massachusetts]. It started with a company called--I'm losing my train of thought (laughs)--I'll remember in a second. But it started in Boston with a company at--from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts] under--Vivian Taylor started this company where they would bring African Americans to Boston to do concerts. Chamber concerts of African American music. Then it was taken over by Louise Toppin, who's a singer and moved the company to Louisiana. And when she moved it to Louisiana--Not Louisiana, North Carolina--I'm losing it--North Carolina. She wanted to have--I'm trying to--I'm stalling 'cause I'm trying to remember the name. She moved it to [East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina]--she wanted to create a recording entity in this company. Because, you know, it's music and it would be good to have a recording of African American music. So three of us composers, myself and another composer named William Banfield and Louise Toppin started the company called Visionary Records. And the company is called--It is called VIDEMUS. But the recording company is called Visionary Records. And VIDEMUS became an entity not only for performing and doing concerts, but became an entity for African Americans to have their music heard on CD [compact disc]. And right now, VIDEMUS itself the company has about ten or fifteen records associated with it over the years. And Visionary Records, we're on our third recording or fourth recording. The last recording I made just recently. Not recently--In 2001 was a--was a Visionary Record recording. And we have a new one coming out--That just came out this month on the music of William Grant Still. I didn't conduct it. But I edited the recording. And it's on the market and it's wonderful. So--.$$For those who may not know (unclear) listen to over the years, who was William Grant Still? Can you just give us a quick--?$$Oh. William Grant Still was the Dean of African American composers. He's really was the first African American composer to really--I guess in the white media to be up there with Aaron Copland and some of the great composers of the time. Aaron Copland--American composers--Charles Ives. So he, you know, is known as, you know, William Grant Still is our father of African American (unclear).$$(Simultaneously) What was his period of time period?$$He was in the early, you know, maybe the late '20s [1920s] to about the '60s [1960s], '70s [1970s].